A nod of thanks to Bill Teie, Francis Carpenter
And Bob Dylan
Onan icy cold morning earlyin1848, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter
fromNew Jersey,picked up a few nuggetsofgold fromthe American River
at the siteofa sawmill he was building for JohnSutter nearColoma. By
August,the hills above the riverwere strewn with wood hutsand tents as
the first of 4,000 miners lured bythe gold discovery scrambled to strike it
rich. Prospectors,fromthe East sailed around Cape Horn. Some hiked
acrossthe IsthmusofPanama,and by 1849, about 40,000 came to
San Franciscoby sea alone
Itwas here, inthis sleepy valley, thattheAmericanDream wasre-defined. Anaccidental
discovery neartheobscure AmericanRiver would forever changea youngnation.The
simple life wouldno longer be enough.Inits place would comeanew kind of lifestyle:
entrepreneurial, wide-open,free. Thenew Americandream:to get rich; tomakeafortune--
Instantwealthwashere for the taking.Allacross America,youngmenmadethedecision to
Every city,every hamlet would sendits brightest, its strongest, to California--andeagerly
awaittheir triumphantreturn home.They camefrom Europe, Asia,andSouthAmericain
Itwas oneofthe greatest adventures theworld hadever seen.
Theycame. And they came. Englanderscame on anything that would
float. Sometimes taking five monthsto roundCape Hornto get to San
Francisco. Theycame from Michigan, Ohio, and western
Pennsylvania. Minersfrom Georgia took the Santa Fe Trailand routes
acrossMexico. Thosewith money came bysteamer to Panama, then
by dugout and mule tothe Pacific side ofthe isthmusfor another
steamer to San Francisco. Bythe end of1849 there were40,000
people in the mines. Disillusionment settled in becauseofgrowing
problems with lawlessness and sickness.
As panning became less effective, the miners moved to more
advanced techniquesfor extracting the precious metal. Butit
was a losing battle as thegold reserveswere declining and the
numberofminerswas increasing dramatically. The
atmosphere offriendly camaraderie so prevalent a year ortwo
earlier, was all but gone by1850. Forty-ninerswho expected
to make their fortunein a few days found themselves digging
for month after month--yearafteryear--with little toshowfor
the effort. Frustrationand depression was rampant.
Out ofdespair, many 49ers turnedto poker
and other formsofgambling in hopes of
snatchingthe quick fortunesthat had
eluded them in the rivers.Whenthat didn't
work, many turnedto crime. Jails,
unnecessarya few yearsearlier, were soon
filled. Hangings became common--almost
Most miners lived in tents andcookedtheir foodover anopenfire. Meals
were usuallybeans, baconor localgamecookedover anopenfire. Most
campsandmining townswere canvastents or woodenbuildings.Fires
were very common.Manycampsandtownswere completelydestroyed
byfire. Someseveral times.
Heavy rainandsnowduring thewinter monthsmade forvery difficult
living andminingconditions.Mostminers spent thewinter inSan
Francisco or somemining town.
Sicknessandcoldswere commonfrom sleeping oncold,dampground.
Thefoodwas notvery nutritious resulting ingenerally poor health.
Scurvywascommonfrom lackoffruits andvegetables. Sanitationwas
poor and miners seldom bathedor washed their clothes.
Manygave up the dream and went home tothe east. Othersstayed on--just
onemore year theyhoped. Onemore year and they'd strikeit rich. And there
were the occasional luckystrikes well into the 1850s--just enoughgood news
to encouragethe massesto continuedigging. Most failed every day, but they
kept on--yearafter year. Dejected, disappointed, many would neverreturn
home toloved onesback east--they would die in California, broken by a
dream that nevercame true.